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Guest blogger Sarah Jacobson is the Jewish fellow for the Buxton Initiative, a Case Foundation partner organization. We've asked Sarah to provide her faith perspective on the holiday season. Updated 12/17/09: For another faith perspective from the Buxton Initiative, check out Teryn's post on Christmas.
As the eight days of Chanukah wind to a close this Friday and the full force of Christmas is still underway, it is easy for anyone to get overwhelmed by the pressure to feel festive. What are some ways we can channel that festive energy into doing more good?
American Jews have felt this pressure for a long time. The Jewish population comprises only about 2.5 percent of the American population – a religious minority by a long shot. This community’s attitude regarding the importance of Chanukah is closely linked to anxiety about assimilation into American culture. Chanukah takes place on the 25th of Kislev, the Jewish lunar calendar, and it hovers around Christmas-time.
Chanukah, which means dedication in Hebrew, is not traditionally a major holiday, or a gift-giving holiday for that matter. It is eight days to remember the victory of the Jews over the Syrian-Greeks in 164 BCE and the subsequent repossession and cleansing of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to Rashi, a Talmudic scholar, at least one additional light should be lit every night, and put in a visible space, in order to publicize the additional miracle that one night’s worth of ritual oil lasted eight nights.
In America, these traditions have adapted. Jewish parents consistently worry about the religious competition, a.k.a. “Christmas envy,” the worry that Judaism is a seemingly less desirable religion than Christianity because of the culture of Christmas in the United States. Thus, the manifold Chanukah consumerist traditions – the massive light-up menorahs, Chanukah bushes (tiny Christmas trees with little lights on them), and eight nights of presents.
It seems like the entire month of December has been shanghaied by a powerful force – buying stuff. How can we step back and find ways to feel connected to the people we care about without succumbing to the pressures of holiday consumerism? And, how can Jews think about Chanukah – and the holiday season in general – in ways that can help all of us think differently about the holiday season?
Spend time giving back to your community. Jewish Community Centers and synagogues around the United States commit to December 25th as a designated volunteer day, or Day of Service. This is a way of identifying this day as special, not only because most people get a day off from work, but because it is an important religious observance for a huge demographic of our country. Here are some great suggestions about other ways to volunteer during this season and beyond - whatever religion you are.
Think outside the box. The December holidays focus on the idea of miracles. A miracle can be regarded as an act of God, but also an event that is totally amazing, or extraordinary. If you think about miracles that way, we can bring more relevance to our traditions and appreciate many extraordinary events that have occurred in modern history. Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster connects the miracle of the defeat of a minority to the 20th century miracle of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was created in 1948, after the horrors of the Holocaust, and marked a new beginning for Jews and other persecuted peoples.
Create your own traditions. Do you know what a Chinese restaurant looks like on Christmas? Well, for one, it’s open, unlike almost all other restaurants. And, it’s often full of Jewish families who have a made a tradition out of necessity. There is no better way to connect people than to participate in meaningful traditions. Sometimes your own family rituals are as pleasing as those established hundreds of years ago.
Embrace the holiday season as an American one. Even though you may never fully escape buying and giving gifts, you can imbue these acts with more meaning.